How to Create Emotion, Not Sentimentality, in Fiction?


Good writing requires the use of emotion, both in the writing and from or in the writer. What? Emotion in the writing itself and the author? Yes, good writing does require emotion from the words and from the writer. Actually, good writing requires creative and effective use, not overuse, of emotion.

Preparing fiction, whether in a short story or novel, without emotion results in telling rather showing. Telling a story may provide the readers with necessary information, but showing allows the reader to “see” the events, actions, and plot unfold. Showing emotion without resorting to sentimentality is a major component in writing vivid, powerful stories that readers can visualize.

In high school and college, most classes concentrate on thought, on the mind.. Teachers and professors encourage, even require, students to use big words, figures of speech, literary devices, and long, dense sentences to create emotion in writing.

Yes, figures of speech and literary devices have a place in poetry. Yes, if used sparingly and creatively in fiction, figures of speech can convey complicated emotions. However, when overused or misused, figurative language, according to Stephen King, in On Writing, “the results are funny and sometimes embarrassing.”

Yet emotions are necessary in fiction writing. According to Dianna Dorisi-Winget in “Let’s Get Physical! Writing Emotion in Fiction,” since emotions are such an integral part of the human condition, “… fiction writers must employ description that accurately expresses a character’s feelings.” However, she continues, simplistic and overused descriptions leave the reader unmoved. Using clichés (these simplistic and overused words or phrases) results in sentimentality.

When we talk or read about highly-emotional subjects like romance and death, we are tempted to use clichés. After all they are found everywhere and represent the shortcuts we use in song and word. Kristen Williams, in “No Place for Hallmark,” stresses this need to avoid these shortcuts in items we write.

Williams defines sentimentality as the exaggerated and affected use of emotion in writing. Affected is further explained as being most often connected to clichés and melodrama, which “affect” emotion, showing only the surface with no substance or justification, no foundation. These types of writing emotion no new perspective on the experience but are shortcuts.

Writers, especially beginners, use sentimentality because doing so is easy. Admitting or describing complicated situations is hard. Using sentimentality means presenting things in black and white, not delving into the complications that actually exist. “Good writers,” Williams says, “will dive right into this complexity instead of staying on the surface.”

James Scott Bell echoes this thought in his article “Leave Them With Hope”: “Delve into your character’s heart. As the author, you must feel the big emotions as much as your fictional creation does.”

Authors can avoid sentimentality without losing emotion needed to reach readers. The writer simply has to deal with the emotion in an original and complex manner by trying to avoid abstract words and ideas. This is accomplished by staying with concrete descriptions. As Bell stated, the author must experience the emotion and describe it with the five senses, write it as he “feels” it. Abstract words and ideas can be interpreted by others in different ways, relying on the readers’ definition. Details are required to make the emotion live.

How can writers avoid “sentimentality”? One exercise is to list common reactions to an emotion. Then the author examines those physical reactions that emotions produce, and simple and overused descriptions are physical reactions to emotion. However the idea is to find other ways to explain those reactions so that the reader isn’t left unmoved. “The trick,” Dorisi-Winget says, “is tapping into your ’emotion memory.’ Get beyond the pounding heart and clenched fist.”

If describing fear, the “sick stomach” might become the tilting like the time seasickness caused lunch to want to escape. The details tell the tale; if used creatively and well, the details “show” the tale.

Writers don’t have to abandon abstract thoughts and words completely, but the majority of description should be concrete. Williams says she uses no more than twenty percent abstract and at least eighty percent detail when using emotion in her writing.

Avoiding sentimentality allows the writer’s perspective to be used, not someone else’s. Writers then create the emotion required in “good” pieces of fiction.

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